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Meditations on Philosophy - Minimalist Beauty in the Ming Dynasty Furniture

By OGP Reporters / Members Contribute File Photos

Oh Good Party

Chinese traditional culture emphasizes the positive interplay between nature and human beings. Applying ideas from Zen and Tao, scholars and craftsmen devoted their wisdom and passion to reflecting this golden rule in furniture, creating the Golden Time of classical furniture.

I look at the sky so blue, sun shining so bright. Spreading heat and happiness with its blinding light. Long blades of grass swaying in the gentle breeze. Dancing in rhythm with so much ease. Look up at the trees hearing the singing of the birds. Happily chirping singing at ease without words. Sitting here holding my knees to my chest. Watching and hearing nature at it s best...( "Lessons From Nature" by Linda)


After the gathering of private collectors, we obtained the most impressive part, that was the luxury and introverted classical Chinese furniture at Yuhu Courtyard.


Classical Chinese furniture generally refers to a wide variety of pieces made during the Ming and Qing dynasties, from the end of the 14th century through to the beginning of the 20th century. It includes tables, cabinets, chairs, stools and bedframes, as well as other furnishings used in domestic settings. Materials, condition, age and provenance are the greatest determining factors of value.


Ming furniture dates from the end of the Ming Dynasty, a transitional time in Chinese history. During the beginning and the middle of the Ming Dynasty, austerity was a government edict. Later, though the economy gained substantial growth, people had to remain low-keyed about their wealth to avoid high taxes. The later years of the Ming dynasty were a period of rising affluence among the elites of China following the austerity of earlier years. Those with wealth and power, and many of more modest means besides, wanted to express themselves socially through their possessions. It was a time of progress in the design and quality of Chinese furniture. This trend continued as the Ming was overthrown by the Manchus of the Qing, until that dynasty too reached the peak of power and prosperity in the late 18th/early 19th century.


Ming furniture is treasured for its precious wood, comfortable design, simple decoration and superb craftsmanship.


Scholars' participation substantially influenced the development of furniture. The scholars' aesthetics helped Ming furniture follow an elegant and natural taste. The scholars grasped the essence of "less is more." Decoration for decoration's sake was a lowbrow skill. In quality furniture, the texture of wood was fully used to reveal natural beauty. Simple design had nothing to do with cheapness; red sandalwood and scented rosewood represented essential value, which. emit pleasant aromas, naturally adding a touch of taste and grace.. Scholars had their special interests and preferences. Small tables, vases, cupboards for books, antiques varied, a seven-stringed instrument, bibelots and incense burners created an elegant atmosphere. Chinese traditional culture emphasizes the positive interplay between nature and human beings. Applying ideas from Zen and Tao, scholars and craftsmen devoted their wisdom and passion to reflecting this golden rule in furniture, creating the Golden Time of classical furniture.


The Ming Dynasty is considered, the golden era in the development of ancient Chinese furniture. This is partly due to the abundance, as yet, of the hard woods used to make furniture during the period, hard woods such as Chinese rosewood or huanghuali (Dalbergia odorifera) and its later substitute, sandalwood; the increasing demand for furniture had, toward the end of the Ming Dynasty, seriously depleted the stocks of the Chinese Dalbergia odorifera tree, which was of course also prized for its fruit. Additionally, the most highly prized timber was zitan or red sandalwood (Pterocarpus santalinus). The dark purple of this slow-growing tropical hardwood native to Southern India resembles the colour that in Qing times was reserved for the use of the dynasty’s rulers. For a time therefore it was decreed that only imperial household could own furniture from this species. Accordingly zitan furniture is extremely rare.


The most valuable and precious of all of these materials are zitan and huanghuali, two types of hardwood found, among other places, on China’s largest island, Hainan. Along with having beautiful lustrous qualities, the woods are difficult to harvest and mostly found outside China, making them even precious.


On the one hand, of mortise and tenon joinery (think of the way that two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle fit together) – which required no nails, screws or other metal joining devices – and, on the other hand, the dovetailing of design to the intended practical use of the article of furniture in question; in other words, Ming Dynasty period furniture was not fancifully designed for the sake of design itself, meaning that design was not divorced from function. Simple structure and minimal decoration set off the natural beauty of the wood. This meaningful simplicity was achieved without sacrificing comfort. Scientific protection for bodily form was reflected in details such as curves, lines, height, and size.


In traditional Chinese architecture, wood components (mainly when the adjoining pieces connect at an angle of 90°), such as beams, brackets, roof frames and struts, were made to interlock with perfect fit, without using fasteners or glues, enabling the wood to expand and contract according to humidity.


The furniture with mortise and tenon structure is tougher and more durable than that connected with iron nails. In its basic form it is both simple and strong. First of all, the mortise and tenon structure uses both mortise and tenon with elaborated combinations of different parts of the furniture, large and small, high and low, long and short to effectively restrict the twist of them in different directions, which might never be achieved with iron nail connection. Secondly, metal rusts and oxidizes easily, while the real mahogany furniture may be used for hundreds or thousands of years. Lots of Ming-style furniture with a history of several hundred years is still as hard as it was in its woodiness, though a little bit old over the times, whereas the furniture with iron nail connection may keep fine woodiness, but may fall apart easily because of the rust, wearing and aging of its metal connection. Ever since the Hemudu Neolithic Age as early as more than 7000 years ago, ancestors of the Chinese people had began to use the mortise and tenon joint. As one of the unique and special techniques in China, the mortise and tenon structure has a long history and is the core of the Chinese-style furniture, which is also called the traditional furniture..


Chinese furniture is made from a variety of hard and soft woods, and is also found in bamboo and lacquer. The price differences between two similar-looking pieces from the same time period in different materials can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. As a collector looking to have our collection grow in value that focus on examples in huanghuali and zitan.


If you’re looking to build a collection of long-lasting value, then you should pay attention to its origin and where it’s been. Almost collectors are very interested in distinguished provenance. This includes not only the owners of the pieces in the distant past, but also those who have owned it in recent times, because provenance can add significant value.


Ultimately, thinking——never forget the beginning of the heart.


What’s most important is that you enjoy the process of collecting? Collecting what you love makes you happier in general.


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